My Fascination With Beer

The discussion that has ensued in the comments section of my last post serves to remind me yet again that beer is a fascinating beverage and one deserving of much respect. This might seem obvious, I know, but it’s something I think people often forget.

For instance, in the glass in front of me right now is a light golden liquid with a faint sweetness and moderate hop taste. Many people would dismiss it out of hand as overly simple and undeserving of attention, and on certain occasions in certain circumstances I might agree with them. But at the end of a long and arduous day, it’s a nice quaff, and yes, so much more besides.

It is, as most readers here will know, created from malted barley, hops, water and yeast. Yet it tastes like none of these things. I have sampled the grain which is used as its base and it tastes a little sweet, a little cereally, and absolutely nothing like what the beer tastes like. I have held a handful of the hops used to season it and inhaled deeply, yet the aroma I detected then is only faintly similar to the wafts of floral perfumes emanating from the glass in my hand. Water I have consumed in copious quantities over my 46 years, from tap, filter, spring, well and bottle, yet never have I tasted water that tastes like this beer. And as for yeast, well, being not at all a fan of Marmite, I think the stuff tastes rather disgusting, whereas this beer is tasting quite fine right now.

In short, I marvel at the incredible alchemy that produces from these four ingredients the glass of goodness in my hand. And even if some might dismiss it as mere lager or pilsner or “session beer” or “fizzy yellow stuff,” I view it as a remarkable creation, one I am honoured to be consuming right now.

One Sentence, Four Mistakes

On my way home from the Cheers Beverage Conference in New Orleans, I picked up the latest issue of Men’s Journal and found a small item entitled “Super Bowl Party Upgrade: Barrel-Aged Beers” in its “Notebook” section at the front of the magazine. Said item, which highlights some very worthy brews, is introduced with the following sentence:

A handful of U.S. brewers have adopted an old European tradition of aging beer in wooden casks – generally, used bourbon or zinfandel barrels – to impart a richness of taste that modern production can’t touch.

Huh? Where to begin? Okay, at the beginning…

“A handful of U.S. brewers…” – Actually, no. Far from a handful, barrel-aging has been embraced by a multitude of breweries large and small from coast to coast and even – gasp! –  outside of the United States. In fact, the practice is significant enough that, at the aforementioned Cheers Conference, I featured a barrel-conditioned ale in my tasting as an example of a burgeoning trend.

“…an old European tradition…” – In the sense that all beer was once kept in wooden barrels and beer has been brewed for millennia longer in Europe than in the U.S., yes, I guess so. But to equate bourbon barrel use in breweries in the States to the aging of porter in England or Flemish reds or lambics in Belgium is misguided at best.

“…used bourbon or zinfandel barrels…” – Okay, I’ll give you bourbon barrels, but zinfandel? More like, generally bourbon barrels but also numerous assorted wine and spirits barrels, including casks that previously held zinfandel, chardonnay, pinot noir and other wines.

“…impart a richness of taste that modern production can’t touch.” – To impart different flavours, I’ll buy, or even a collection of spirituous or tart, fruity flavours otherwise unobtainable, but don’t tell me that a non-barrelled beer can’t be as rich as a barrelled beer.

About Those Brazilian Craft Breweries

I’ve been writing off and on about my Brazilian trip since I returned home to now-freezing Toronto, promising all the time that I’d get around to mentioning the specific beers and breweries that impressed me. And for one reason or another, I haven’t gotten around to doing so yet.

But now’s the time.

Going back to the three breweries that impressed me enough at this past summer’s Mondial de la Bière to make me want to travel all the way to São Paulo and beyond, I remain a fan of Cervejaria Colorado, Falke and Wäls. The first, Colorado, is lead by the man most people I spoke with identify as the co-father of Brazilian craft brewing – alongside Cássio Piccolo of FrangÓ – Marcelo Rocha. Of his brewery’s four mainstay brews, I very much enjoy the Indica IPA, fermented with rapadura cane sugar to a soft apple fruitiness and balanced with a firm but not overwhelming hoppy bitterness, qualities that lend it very much to pairing with Brazilian cuisine. The Brazilian coffee-flavoured Demoiselle Porter is also a very fine ale, with a well-integrated coffee appeal and roundly roasty body.

Falke’s Marco Falcone achieves his greatest success – of what I had the chance to try, at least – with his abbey-style Monasterium, with ample spice and raisin on the nose and more spice blended with notes of apricot, dried pear and orange in the body, along with some light vanilla and lingering warmth on the finish. Not to be discounted, though, is the same brewery’s Ouro Preto, a rich and pumpernickel-ish schwarzbier.

Wäls has some good things going on in their abbey-inspired ales, too, but suffers from over-pasteurization in the bottle, a not entirely uncommon trait of Brazilian craft beers, I’m afraid. Their Tripel is  fresh and floral and fruity on tap and darker and flatter of flavour in the bottle, for example.

On the new-to-me front, I found plenty to be happy about, beginning with one of the first beers I sampled at the beer festival, Klein Tchec, a Bohemian-German hybrid pilsner with soft and enticing florals on the nose and front end and a solid slap of bitter hoppiness in the back. A scant few beers later, I encountered Junkabeer’s Double Vienna Lager, a beer that should make me roll my eyes with its name – “double” this and “Imperial” that always try my patience – but instead lured me onside with its floral passion fruit aroma and intriguing flavour that made me think of the taste of apricots – if they were a flower instead of a fruit.

The stylish Cerveja Coruja caught my eye with their packaging and display, but got my attention with a solid, lightly sulphur-y keller-style lager called Otis and an excellent weissbier by the name of Alba Weizen, pleasantly phenolic on the nose thanks to the use of a small amount of smoked malt and crisp, dry and apple-citrusy in the body.

I predict great things to come from Cervejaria Way, a brewery so new they only received their name and graphics the Friday before the fest. Their American Pale Ale is a solid and balanced interpretation of the style, with a spicy hoppiness and notes of apple, buckwheat honey and toasted citrus peel, but their Umburana Lager, at 9.6% alcohol and aged on Brazilian umburana wood chips to lightly tannic, vanilla-spiced smoothness, is really the one to watch here.

And then there is Cervejaria Bodebrown, an enigmatic brewery and brewing school combination led by Samuel Cavalcanti, who wears his disdain of the Reinheitsgebot like a badge of honour and backs up his bravado with such brews as the Cerveja de Amor, a weissbier flavoured quite refreshingly with the tartness of fresh raspberries, and the whisky barrel-aged, 8% alcohol Wee Heavy, with flavour notes of chocolate fudge, vanilla bean, date and raisin, all leading to a spicy, warming finish.

On the more conventional side of the ledger, Abadessa caught my attention with a solid Export, crafted true to the Dortmund style and gifted with what Michael Jackson used to call a “firm maltiness.” One sip of this dryly toasty lager, I think, explains better than words ever could what export is all about, and their Helles wasn’t bad, either!

Outside of the festival, I continued to encounter worthy brews, like Falke’s ESB-ish Estrada Real IPA, Cervejaria Bamberg’s solid and lemon-spicy Weizen and moderately smoky, caramelly Rauchbier, with its nutty grain, kasha-esque aroma, and Eisenbahn’s Dunkel, really a schwarzbier and still a solid offering two years after the brewery’s sale to Schincariol.

In summary, I sampled a healthy number of good beers with great potential while in Brazil, a handful of problematic ones and more than just a few for which the future is now. I said it on Facebook and I’ll say it again here: My prediction is that as the World Cup and Olympics in Brazil get closer, we’ll be hearing a lot more from Brazilian breweries not named InBev!

Take Me Back to FrangÓ!

Back when I ran my blog on That’s the Spirit, I had an occasional feature I called “Great Global Beer Bars.” In it, I featured a few of my favourites and explained precisely what it was about them I thought so laudable, places like the Oud Arsenaal in Antwerp – which I mention not just because Arsenal is playing their final group stage Champions League game today – and the One Pint Pub in Helsinki.

Were I still running this series, I would have one more to add today: FrangÓ!

I spent a large chunk of a day at FrangÓ during my recent visit to São Paulo, but in truth I have no idea how I got there. Sure, it was by taxi, but even with my better-than-average (I believe) sense of direction, the twists and turns we took en route had me completely discombobulated. I’m told that it’s somewhere in the outlying reaches of the city, but for more than that you’re going to have to ask Mr. Google.

Which, if you find yourself in São Paulo, you absolutely should do! Because despite its modest exterior and out of the way locale, FrangÓ is a serious beer bar, one which would stand out in any major beer city anywhere in the world. Walk in the front door and you’ll see a small room backed by a bar and a kitchen where, if you’re lucky, various chicken parts will be aromatically slow roasting on a spit over charcoal. In behind all that is another seating area, a little larger than the front, but still small, and a staircase that takes you to the “Choperia,” which is where FrangÓ really opens up.

The principle destination of the hoards of people who descend on FrangÓ every weekend, the basement Choperia veritably brims with beer, in fridges along one wall, in crawl spaces to one end of the room and in a large cage at the other. And what beers they are! Although imported ales and lagers are by North American standards prohibitively expensive in Brazil,

FrangÓ owner Cássio Piccolo with Cervejaria Colorado's Marcelo Rocha

FrangÓ owner Cássio Piccolo stocks literally hundreds of brews from around the globe, including some he says don’t sell particularly well, but number among his own personal favourites.

And that is what truly strikes at the heart of what makes FrangÓ great: it is a place of true and pure passion for beer, in all its forms and almost infinite flavours. Piccolo founded FrangÓ before it was possible to obtain a wide variety of beers in Brazil, but took that as his mandate anyway because he wanted to lead the way forward for São Paulo and Brazil as a whole. He’s still leading.

Deep Breath In, Deep Breath Out

I’m back home in suddenly snowy Toronto, counting the days until my next excursion to warmer climes and realizing with a start that I’m behind on several projects. Like the column deadline that passed last week. And other stuff.

Which is by way of explaining that while I’ll be returning to the subject of Brazilian beer shortly, for the moment I’d like to turn my attention to those who brew and serve and sell and consumer Brazilian beer, more specifically the crew who just completed the Curso de Sommelier de Cerveja in São Paulo. No ordinary beer training, the Curso was a two week, nine-hour-a-day intensive instruction in everything from brewing and beer style to beer cocktails and beer and food pairing, and no doubt much more my lack of Portuguese language skills prevented me from understanding.

I had the honour of speaking to this group on my last day in Brazil and I can assure you that even after eight days of marathon sessions, the class remained rapt and enthusiastic. All in the name of certification in a culture that reveres the ice-cold lager and in which craft beer accounts for a mere 0.2% of the market.

Congratulations, graduates, and welcome to the greater world of beer! I’m sure we’ll be seeing each other again sometime soon.